The Pulse | Security | South Asia

India and the US: Defense Collaboration Is Key

The two countries do not have a single project that they can hold up as symbolic of the depth of their defense cooperation.

India and the US: Defense Collaboration Is Key
Credit: Depositphotos

India and the United States need a landmark defense deal to strengthen their defense ties, similar to the 2005 nuclear agreement, which marked a turning point in their overall bilateral relationship. Such a deal will demonstrate to India that the U.S is capable of being a strong ally as Russia has been.

Ten year after the U.S. set up the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) with India and conferred Strategic Trade Authorization-1 status on it, which Washington only does for close allies, the two countries do not have a single project that they can claim symbolizes the depth of their defense relationship. In contrast, India and Russia have the BrahMos supersonic missile and the nuclear submarine project, which they can hold up as concrete outcomes of their defense cooperation.

The United States can strengthen its defense relationship with India in three ways.

Transfer of U.S. Technology to India

The strategic partnership between India and the U.S. may be relatively new but given the rapidly changing security situation in the Indo-Pacific region as well as India’s importance, there is a need for a watershed moment in India-U.S relations that involves a major U.S. technology transfer project. Potential areas of technology transfer include nuclear and conventional naval propulsion systems and aircraft engines.

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With Russian assistance, India has developed an Arihant class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) to complete its nuclear triad. However, it requires more powerful nuclear reactors, not only for larger SSBNs but also for planned nuclear attack submarines and large aircraft carriers. Although India has yet to decide on the next carrier, it will almost certainly be conventionally powered due to the lack of a sufficiently powered nuclear reactor for a super carrier. The U.S. may want to consider a nuclear submarine cooperation project with India.

Conventional naval propulsion systems are also ripe for cooperation. India builds its own aircraft carriers, destroyers, frigates, and other warships, but all of them use foreign engines, primarily those manufactured by Ukraine’s Zorya or the United States’ GE.

The Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, India’s lone indigenous fighter aircraft, is powered by GE’s F404. Future variants as well as the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, which is still in development, will be powered by GE’s F414 engines. India’s attempt to build the homegrown Kaveri engine has a tumultuous history. Attempts to enlist international assistance, particularly from France, have failed. The U.S. could step in to help India with these engines.

Protecting the commercial interests of its companies is an obvious hurdle to the U.S. sharing technology with India. Unlike Russia, which has state-controlled defense companies and can select what it wants to share, the U.S. military-industrial complex is driven by the private sector, which owns the intellectual property. The U.S. will have to devise ways to cooperate with India on technologies, such as offset clauses for major weapons systems purchased by India, or technologies developed with government funding.

Joint Production

An important reason for the DTTI’s failure to deliver is the vast economic and defense technology gap between India and the United States. This is why a game-changing collaborative project has not even been considered. In the case of such projects with Russia, India brought in money and expertise and frequently bailed out struggling Russian defense companies. However, U.S. defense companies are not short on cash, and in many areas, they are a generation ahead of their Western allies in terms of technology, thus limiting opportunities for joint projects.

One such opportunity, and a missed one at that, was the development of a long-range air defense system. In 2015, India expressed interest in the Russian S-400. Instead of proposing a creative solution, the U.S., which lacks a comparable system, warned India about sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). India did not propose joint development either. It has built strong air defense capabilities, including ballistic missile defense. It collaborated with Israel in the creation of the Barak system. A trilateral project including India, the U.S., and Israel could have been possible. In addition to being a collaborative project, this would have been a watershed moment in bilateral relations.

For the future, India and the U.S. could explore high-powered directed energy weapons to counter aerial threats like fighter jets and drones. Countermeasures against small drones and swarm drones that are both effective and cost-effective and hypersonic missiles are other potential systems they could collaborate on. Opportunities may exist in the cyber and space domains as well, but they will be less visible.

Assistance with Indigenization of Russian Weapon Components

Russian-made equipment, weapons, and platforms account for 86 percent of all military equipment, weaponry, and platforms now in use in India.  That is a massive inventory that will serve India for many decades and cannot be replaced quickly.  Spares, maintenance, and upgrades will be required. While the U.S. has stated that it can assist India in transitioning away from Russia by utilizing sources such as Ukraine and Eastern European countries, this will only shift India’s dependency rather than creating self-sufficiency.

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Material science, manufacturing processes, advanced machinery, and understanding of various technologies are some areas where the U.S. can assist India. India lacked warship-grade steel for a long time and relied on Russia before making a breakthrough. Despite the fact that India manufactures Russian Su-30 fighter jets, the raw materials are imported from Russia. Aiding India in the manufacture of components for Russian weaponry will eliminate a major dependency.

Conclusion

A strong India benefits the United States. As Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin noted at the recent 2+2 talks, a strong India-U.S. partnership is a critical building block in a more resilient, regional security architecture. Global challenges have multiplied, and the order that has kept the peace since the Cold War’s end is under strain. With the rise of China, a new Cold War has begun, this time in the Indo-Pacific, where India is a key player.  With its global presence and multiple theaters opening up, U.S. power is reaching its limits and becoming increasingly stretched. A strong India that not only balances China but also plays a larger security role in the region will relieve some pressure on the United States.

Assisting India in developing a robust military-industrial complex will most likely shift India’s inclination toward the U.S. for critical weapons imports, as it has with Russia thus far. As cost constraints tighten, U.S. defense companies will benefit from partnering with India in their supply chain, taking advantage of lower costs. Perhaps in the future, India could be a part of a new multinational weapons project led by the U.S., bringing some of the capabilities it develops as well as financial contributions from its expanding economy. Pursuing only a buyer-seller relationship as an alternative to Russia will only shift India’s dependency, which will not be of interest to New Delhi.